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This urban planner says hostile architecture makes public spaces inequitable

Since the 1970s, cities have been employing something called hostile architecture to try to keep certain people from being in certain places — think handles on bus benches to prevent people from laying down on them.

Some states are now starting to rethink this, but Jonathan Pacheco Bell says it’s still very common in cities around the world.

Pacheco Bell is a senior embedded planner at the firm 4Leaf Inc and a lecturer in urban and regional planning at Cal Poly Pomona.

Full interview

JONATHAN PACHECO BELL: Well, I define hostile architecture as elements of the built environment designed to deter normal human behaviors — like sitting or resting — and make publicly accessible spaces uncomfortable for targeted populations.

If you’ve been out in a city any time recently, you have encountered hostile architecture. When you see that bus bench with the extra crossbars attached to it, that is deliberately made to be uncomfortable, so a homeless person can’t lay there and rest. That is a highly visible example of hostile architecture.

MARK BRODIE: They don’t necessarily have to be super obvious though, right? Like they can be things that people might mistake for architectural details or design details, right?

PACHECO BELL: That is correct. A lot of hostile architecture is obvious. It’s ostentatious because it wants to drive you away, but a lot of it is also subtle. One of the more subtle versions of it are those metal attachments grafted onto handrails or ledges that sometimes look like design elements, but they’re usually a way to push away people from sitting there. And especially to push away skateboarders from using those ledges or those handrails to do their tricks.

BRODIE: Does it tend to have the desired effect of keeping people experiencing homelessness from laying on benches or keeping skateboarders from using handrails for their tricks?

PACHECO BELL: It has the effect of displacing people. It has the effect of pushing people away. Hostile architecture does not offer any solutions.

So when we have things like metal attachments grafted onto ledges or spikes — sometimes the much more aggressive versions — or those crossbars on bus benches, or when you have things like exterior sprinklers that rain down water on the sidewalk to prevent people from standing there, or when you have things like obvious obstructions placed on the on the sidewalk so as to prevent people from sleeping. None of that amounts to a solution. It just pushes the problem elsewhere.

BRODIE: Does it also cause people who otherwise are trying to use those things, like other bus riders for example, does it make things a little less comfortable or less user friendly for people maybe who are not the targeted population that this kind of stuff is aimed at?

PACHECO BELL: Absolutely. And I’m really glad you brought that up. See, hostile architecture is designed to target vulnerable populations. Unhoused people, folks deemed loiters. Teenagers often are the target of hostile architecture, but it has effects on anybody who’s in public space. So we all are impacted by hostile architecture.

BRODIE: What are the conversations like about this among your colleagues and other people who do what you do? Because somebody’s got to decide, “Yes, we’re going to put these in” or “No, we’re not.”

So for cities or for city planners or, you know, others in a city who decide, “Yes, we need these, we want these,” they have to have the reasons to do it. So what are those conversations like?

PACHECO BELL: A lot of times city planners get blamed for this, but in fact, it’s oftentimes not city planners that are deciding to add hostile architecture. Rather, it’s the absence of mechanisms within city planning to deal with it. One of my longstanding critiques.

So, yes, there are instances where public agencies or the state might support the addition of hostile architecture, but there are also many instances where the private sector is doing this.

You have sometimes groups that form together to create hostile architecture to add in public space, to drive away those who they deem undesirable, and then sometimes you have sort of lone wolf individuals.

So this is a multidimensional issue. This is a multidimensional public space equity issue with a lot of people involved in it. My critique is that the urban planning field has done very little to address it.

The sharpest critiques that are coming out right now about hostile architecture are coming from the citizen journalists, young people on TikTok. And that is giving me hope that we’re going to have a turning point where we can start really talking about this as a international public space equity issue driven by young people on social media.

BRODIE: Yeah, that is interesting. I wonder if you draw a distinction between maybe public places — city parks, bus benches, things like that — and private spaces — the space in front of a business or maybe even in front of an apartment building or somebody’s home where somebody who owns that space, not the city, has put something there to maybe dissuade people experiencing homelessness from camping out there or skateboarders or whomever else.

Do you see a difference between cities using these and private individuals or private businesses using these?

PACHECO BELL: Well, this is a really good question because it’s talking about what we have access to. That’s the heart of your question. The front of a building might be privately owned, and that’s why I talk about hostile architecture as being a problem in publicly accessible spaces. Meaning, yes, the public right of way, The sidewalk. But also those areas that might be publicly accessible and technically on private property.

We have we have sometimes areas of cities that look like a sidewalk, but they’re actually privately owned. There might be an easement there. Or it might be that the property line extends there, but it’s privately owned, yet it’s still publicly accessible.

So the criticism stands, I believe, because even if it’s a privately owned space, if it’s publicly accessible, it’s creating an inequity for people in public if they can’t use it by sitting down because there are spikes coming out of it, for example, or obvious obstructions.

And the heart of the problem of hostile architecture is this: publicly accessible space, the built environment is for all of us. We all have a right to access and be in public space. This design approach drives us away and it makes the right to the city impossible.

BRODIE: Do you see it as maybe a little better? You mentioned that it’s not a solution, it just pushes people away. Are these more acceptable if there is also a solution? For example, if a city has accessible shelters or a place for people who would like to camp outdoors to go to to say, “OK, we don’t want you in this park, we don’t want you on this bus bench. But here are some places that you can go instead.” Like, does that make it any better?

PACHECO BELL: We certainly need those resources for our unhoused neighbors. We need those resources for anybody from the community who is in need. But the presence of hostile architecture is still a problem. I’m envisioning a city without the deliberate design of inequity. As an urban planner. That’s the kind of community that’s the kind of city I want for our people.

If hostile architecture exists, it makes public space inequitable. It makes people uncomfortable, so the presence of it alone is a problem.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.